Monday, June 27, 2011

The eyes have it!

My son is starting middle school in a few short weeks. My own adolescent experience was so many light years ago that it’s mostly just a blur of feathered hair, angst, and Clearasil. What I do remember and what my son is beginning to realize is that most kids this age have one common goal: fitting in. This child has never cared what clothes or shoes I bought for him as long as they were comfortable. He would just as soon go to school with bed head than let anyone try to tame his hair with some water and a brush. That has all changed now with his pleading for the “right” shoes and his perfect execution of the Justin Bieber hair flip. His mad dash to pre-teen conformity has led us down another path that I wasn’t quite ready for yet: replacing his eye glasses with contacts.

I don’t do eyeballs. I tried to explain that fact to my son in no uncertain terms. If I’m too squeamish to touch my own eye, I’m certainly not sticking my shaky fingers into another person’s gooey socket. I thought I had done a good job of scaring him away from the idea, telling him of the dangers of accidentally sleeping in them and how, if he wasn’t careful, he would end up with a weeping, nasty infection. However, all of my scare tactics flew out of the window when he went for his check-up in May. The first words out of that kid’s mouth were, “Am I old enough to get contacts now?” I wanted to scream, and I shot him a “how-in-the-world-can-you-betray-the-woman-who-birthed-you” kind of look. Of course, the doctor was on his side, arguing that a person with his eye condition (astigmatism, far-sighted) does better with contacts. GRRRR…..

I caved.

On the day the contacts arrived, we went in for instruction on the proper care and placement of the lenses. Even though I vowed to never help him due to my overly sensitive gag and flinch reflexes, I made a mental note of the lesson because we all know how responsible and diligent a pre-teen boy can be in these situations. He had to be able to successfully put them in and take them out several times before they would allow him to leave with them. He passed with flying colors, so I nervously took my newly un-bespectacled boy home.

That night we went into the bathroom when it was time to remove the contacts. I was so anxious that I couldn’t even watch him reach into his eye to pull it out. The right one came out beautifully. “Okay,” I thought, “maybe this won’t be as bad as I imagined.” Just when I believed we were in the clear, he couldn’t get the left lens out. After several attempts, he started to become upset, telling me that he was scared that his eye would be “messed up” if the lens stayed there, and he had to sleep in it. (Parenting Fail. Maybe those scare tactics were a bad idea, huh?)

I encouraged him to stop trying for a few minutes in an effort to help him regain his composure. I suggested that we get my super bright, magnified make-up mirror (which, by the way, will hurt your feelings if you’re over forty years old) and sit at the table downstairs for a better look at what we were dealing with. He tried over and over and over and over and over again, but that lens wouldn’t budge. To say that we had reached the point of hysteria in our house is an understatement. My son and I were both teetering on the edge of a full-blown meltdown. Even my husband Googling “what happens when you sleep with your contacts in” didn’t stop my son from believing that his eye would somehow shrink back into his brain and dissolve if he went to bed with it in there.

Then, I had a light bulb moment. We called our neighbor, a nurse, and asked if he could come over with his seventh grader, who also wears contacts. I figured between the two of them, they could get it out. I had to leave the room before the excavation began. I just couldn’t stand to watch a thirteen-year-old boy dig around in my baby’s eye. And dig he did, each time grabbing what he thought was the lens, but never getting a good grip on it. After at least another thirty minutes or more of trying with no success, we decided to stop. My son declared that his six hours in contacts were enough and that he was going back to wearing glasses.  I promised to get him the best looking frames out there with Transitions lenses to boot. After this drama, I would have gotten him a pony if he had asked.

My husband took him to the eye doctor the next morning only to discover that the lens wasn’t in his eye after all. It must have come out sometime during the great wailing and gnashing of teeth downstairs at the kitchen table. Later that day, I walked into my son's bathroom, and to my surprise, there sat the lens on the floor in plain sight. It didn’t come out during the meltdown as we presumed. He actually got it out on the second try and didn’t realize it. So, for two hours, friends and family were digging into his bare eye, latching on briefly to the eyeball itself each time. (EEEEEKKKKKK!!!)

To my son’s credit, he didn’t give up so easily as I would have. He agreed to try again, and after his mutilated-looking eye was back to normal, he started wearing contacts without another cringe-worthy incident.  I still look away every time he takes them out, hoping that we don’t have a repeat of that first toe-curling night. Did I mention that I don’t do eyeballs?

Friday, June 17, 2011

How to Build a Renaissance Man - Part Two

I stay away from the tough guy set. I know it takes all kinds, and I’m not saying that PBR-loving wrestling fanatics aren’t good people. It’s just that I don’t find it amusing when a man can’t figure out which end of a baby to diaper or feigns ignorance of the washing machine cycles. Maybe some women are turned on by a macho man who knows his way around a gas grill and the TV remote but gets lost on the path to the laundry hamper, trash can and dishwasher. I am not that woman.

Perhaps I’m going against the grain by being a pig-headed wife who absolutely refuses to cook and clean and iron and raise children while the Tool Man sits in his recliner watching Monday Night Football, shouting profanities at referees and guzzling beer. I will admit to being a handfull, but I will never apologize for taking a stand. The reason I make a conscious effort to avoid Bubba and all of his rowdy friends can be summed up neatly in two words: my father.

It is no secret that my father was more Cro-Magnon Man than Renaissance Man. He even grunted. I am not kidding. He called all males under the age of thirty “Boy” and used hand gestures to communicate his needs and displeasure. When he wanted a fresh beer, he would tap his empty can on the glass he was drinking from, and the nearest servant kid would jump to retrieve another cold one for the Master. He sat in his worn, brown chair with a scowl on his weathered face while my mom prepared his meals and placed them in front of him on the TV tray. He didn’t eat with the family because it was his world, and we were the peons passing through. Well, either that or he was too riveted by “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” to leave his seat.

Many girls raised in an atmosphere like I was will grow into women who are destined to continue the “Me, Tarzan/You, Jane” cycle. You know these people. They gripe about doing all the work around the house and being chronically under-appreciated even though they willingly walked down the aisle and said, “I do” to their caveman. These Martyr Moms wonder aloud on Facebook why the laundry is invisible to the male species and lament the fact that they shop, cook meals and wash dishes as the husband burps and leaves the room. That could have been me, but it isn’t. I methodically stored away those childhood memories of tip-toeing around the sleeping ogre, vowing to be the one to break the circle.

I was born with a legendary streak of stubborn-ness coupled with a nasty little temper, and anyone who knows me well can testify that I eschew everything June Cleaver or Carol Brady-like. I dated a few members of the He Man Woman Haters Club early on, enough to figure out that my tolerance for mouth breathers is zero. Any guy looking for a woman to serve as his full-time maid and errand girl can go prop his feet up on some other woman’s sofa. I swore with every ounce of my being that I would find a man who knew what laundry detergent looked like and how to use it, one who would be confident enough in his manhood to make a midnight tampon run to Walgreen’s and even fold a fitted sheet from time to time.

I found him.

So, what does my dating preference have to do with building a Renaissance Man? Only everything, because the second and possibly most important half of raising a son who isn’t a crotch-scratching, chauvinistic D-bag is more complicated than just teaching the boy to clean toilets and sort laundry. It’s about cultivating an environment where women are respected as equals and not short order cooks with benefits. How could I tell my child that women aren’t lower on the food chain if I’m kowtowing to the human incarnation of Fred Flintstone every day? He has to be a witness to his mother being a strong woman, understand that I have opinions that matter, and know that men can make beds, too.

Being a Renaissance Man has nothing to do with loving “Les Miserables” or having the talent to paint your interpretation of the sky at dusk while debating European history. It doesn’t mean you let a woman treat you like a door mat or that you give up having a beer and watching baseball with your guy friends on a scorching summer day. It means you are self-sufficient, not expecting a woman to wash your boxer shorts or cook your breakfast every day, and at the same time, respecting her mind and encouraging her to be expressive, asking for her opinion and honestly taking it into consideration.

Raising a boy is tough. I witnessed my father doing so many things the wrong way, but I don’t fault him for it. He had his own demons to fight, and it made me who I am today. (Slightly neurotic and overbearing.) It’s my turn to make some small difference in the next generation. I’m charged with molding my son into a person who will make a positive impact on this world and become the Renaissance Man I know he can be…just like his dad.  Now, if I can just drag him away from "Dog, the Bounty Hunter"...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Acknowledging the elephant

When I first started writing this blog, I needed serious help.  I'm the writer of Christmas cards and sarcastic e-mails, not prose that will set the world on fire.  I found a book in those early days that served as a "How to Compose a Story for Dummies" of sorts, guiding me through uncharted territory and encouraging me to follow my voice.  One anecdote from the book has always stuck with me.  The writer recounts a time when she realized all she ever wrote about was her family.  She made a conscious decision to write about anything but her relatives.  Nothing came.  She soon realized that when she closed the door to what her heart really wanted to say, everything else was shut out, too.

That's where I am today.  In order for me to move on, I need to acknowledge the story again.  It's that same stupid animal that sits on my chest every summer.  I have written ad nauseam about my mother's death and the forgettable summer of 2008, but I have never explained in detail how another tragedy started the chain of events that lead our family into an uncontrollable tailspin during that horrible summer of my discontent.

On Memorial Day weekend of 2008, my mother had been living with my family for three years.  Late that Saturday night we received a call that is every parent's worst nightmare: my sister and her husband had been in a catastrophic motorcycle accident.  She was sitting on the back of my brother-in-law's bike with another couple riding along beside them when they stopped for a red light.   Behind them sped a drunken kid who slammed into the foursome at full speed.  One friend heard the truck coming and managed to pull away just in time.  The other biker, my sister's good friend, had no time to react.  She was knocked airborne into the intersection and landed with a vengeance.  She died instantly.  My sister and her husband were severely injured as they were trapped in the wreckage.

The pair was airlifted to a trauma center where the prognosis for their recovery was very poor.  Neither was wearing a helmet, and they were both in a coma.  I went to the hospital each day for a week encouraging my sister to open her eyes, to acknowledge us in some small way.  She had damage to her leg that required surgery, and her brain was also injured, but we held onto the hope that she would pull through.  Her husband fared even worse, though.  His brain injury was far more serious, and he lost his leg in the accident.  In an instant, their lives were irreparably changed.

I had the task of bringing my mother to see them while they were being treated in the ICU.  It was no small job, believe me. The hospital was forty minutes from my home, and she could only go the enormous distance from the parking garage, through the mammoth hospital to the umpteenth floor by way of wheel chair.  I knew my mother's health was failing, and this accident weighed heavy on her.  The stress of this tragedy weighed heavy on us all because we had to act like a family, not a an awkward group of strangers stranded on a stuck elevator.

After a week, my sister began to come around.  She didn't remember anything about the wreck that landed her in the hospital and had no idea her friend was dead.  My oldest sister and I planned to tell her the whole story that Monday morning.  As I sat in the room with her waiting for our sibling to arrive, my phone rang.  It was my mom.  She was at home alone with my then three-year-old daughter.  She said she was suddenly weak and felt like she couldn't even make the short walk down the hall to her bathroom or move from her chair.  Panicked, I sent my husband to assess the situation.

My phone rang again, and this time it was my husband.  The ambulance was at my house.  I took a deep breath, gathered my purse and left one hospital drama to embark on another.  After spending the previous week waiting for my sister to come out of her coma, I spent the new one waiting for the results of test after test to determine the cause of my mother's vague symptoms.  At the beginning of week three that summer, we had our answer: Renal Cell Carcinoma - kidney cancer.  It had been spreading with wild abandon for God only knows how long.  All of these symptoms - achy hip, stiff neck, anemia - they weren't just the maladies of old age.  She was being eaten alive by the cancer, and little did we know that we were too late to the fight.

We tried.  We really did.  Even in her weakened state, she endured radiation.  Her legs were so shaky that I had to place a chair in the landing of our stairway so that she could rest while making the climb to her room. I walked the steps behind her just in case she needed a little boost to keep going. I methodically doled out her medicine, and I cooked for her steaks and leafy greens to boost the iron the cancer was ruthlessly leaching from her.

However, it was all to no avail.  One night as we were talking, I told her that I needed to step out and would be right back to help her into bed for the evening.  When I came back for her, she didn't recognize me.  Her speech was slurred, and she was speaking in a language none of us understood. Once again, she was back into the hospital, and she never came home again.

At the funeral, my sister, barely on the way to recovery herself, hobbled in with the help of her family.  That very morning her husband was experiencing yet another setback as she left him at the hospital while we buried our mother.  Our disastrous summer that began with a shocking, fatal accident on Memorial Day weekend, ended with us laying to rest our beloved Mama on Labor Day weekend.  The summer had come and gone in one horrific whirlwind.

It's a story I have to tell.  It screams to be acknowledged with each passing anniversary, and it grips me tight until I let it out.  It's like the worst kind of stomach bug that makes you vomit over and over, projectile at times, until the sickness and pain are gone, and once again you can stand steady on your own two feet.  Thanks for being here to hold back my hair.

Friday, June 3, 2011

How to Build a Renaissance Man - Part One

You can take everything I know about raising children and fit it nicely onto half of a postage stamp.  I am keenly aware of the fact that I suck in that capacity.  When I found out in 1999 that I was going to have a son, panic set in immediately.  Don't boys drive recklessly, break up with girls that won't sleep with them, and routinely pee on the floor beside the toilet instead of in the toilet?  Aren't they supposed to like "The Three Stooges," Miller Lite, and football?  I really hate those things.  I was worried, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that even though I didn't know how to help him find the path to the Johnny Depp School of Awesome Manhoodliness, I clearly identified the one road I would block with every ounce of my I-am-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar strength...the road to Mama's Boy Land.  I knew that I had to build a Renaissance Man from scratch.

It started around the time my son turned eight.  As I was doing the laundry one afternoon in July, I realized that there were jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and even a hoodie in my son's hamper.  Only a bank robber would wear this kind of outfit in the South in the middle of a summer heat wave.  Knowing that my son hadn't left the cul-de-sac, much less scored a get-away car, I questioned him about the winter clothes.  It turned out that every time an article of clothing fell off a hanger, he would toss it in with the dirty pile to avoid the dreaded task of putting back where it belonged.  That day my son learned how to use the washing machine and dryer.   Did I feel guilty for making a third grader wash his own clothes?  Seriously?  Hell, no.  For as much as he complained at first, I explained in no uncertain terms that he wasn't picking cotton or plowing a field with horses, and instructed him to turn off "Phineas and Ferb" and get to folding.  I haven't looked back since.

It didn't take too long for my son to understand the value of money.  Whenever a birthday rolled around and cash was sent as a gift, he quickly spent it and asked how to get more.  "You have to work for it," I said.  "Only the Hilton and Kardashian girls get to sit around while money magically appears in their bank account."

We made a chore list and assigned a monetary value to each job.  He floundered for a while, sometimes working and sometimes whining that I was an impossible taskmaster.  I sat the boy down and told him the hard truth about life: It's not fair.  I explained that if he wanted my hard-earned money, he was going to have to clean to my standards, or there would be no exchanging of funds.  He quickly got with the program, knowing that there would be inspections each time he completed a task.  As mean as it sounds, I pointed out every missed spot on the bathroom mirror, every un-emptied garbage can.  I told him that my boss wouldn't think a half-ass job was acceptable, and neither would I.  What emerged was a boy who can clean a toilet just as good as The Brady' Bunch's Alice.

Instead of giving him cash, I created an imaginary bank, and we have a ledger for a "checking" account of sorts.  We entered credits and debits as he earned money and made purchases.  His epiphany came when he wanted an expensive soccer ball.  I said, "No way am I buying that for you....but you have plenty in your account if you really want it."  Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!  Now, he's like the spawn of Donald Trump and Warren Buffett, begging to wash cars and scrub baseboards to earn more.  At eleven years old, he recently purchased his own smart phone, and we subtract eight dollars per week from his account to pay for his service plan. (Yes, I'm that tough.  Hey, growing up hurts, and it's a good life lesson to have a bill due every month, like it or not.)

Stepping out into the real world as a young adult will be so much easier for him having been taught how to balance a checkbook and that red shirts do not go in with white towels.  Now, I have a young man who knows two very important truths about life: money doesn't grow on trees, and Mommy's toilet better be April fresh.

**Next week: Step Two - How burping up stale beer and hot wings do not a Renaissance Man make...**